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The Good Fight’s Audra McDonald on Singing Prince Songs With Christine Baranski

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

In its third season, The Good Fight’s smart-as-hell, blackly comedic satire has tackled pay disparity along racial lines, white women calling the cops on unsuspecting black citizens, the ethical dynamics of mounting a resistance, and racial sensitivity training in the corporate sector — not to mention its use of fourth-wall-breaking monologues and animated segments that feel like a more vulgar School House Rock along the way. But even with all these striking narrative and aesthetic gambits, the series hasn’t lost sight of the emotional terrain its characters are mired in. No character has moved me more this season than Liz Reddick, played by six-time Tony Award–winning actress Audra McDonald with grace and quiet intensity.

McDonald’s character first appeared in season four of The Good Wife, and she has only deepened in complexity and purpose since becoming a major character in The Good Fight. This season, Liz wrestles with the complexity of learning that her father, a civil-rights icon played by the iconic Louis Gossett Jr., sexually assaulted women whom he hired. These scenes are raw, bracing, and emotionally revelatory thanks to McDonald’s tremendous skill. I spoke with McDonald, who is currently rehearsing for the Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune revival, about the show’s ethical dilemmas, singing Prince with Christine Baranski, and the one line she insisted Liz Reddick would never say.

I loved you and Christine singing “Raspberry Beret” in episode five. Did you have any input on the song choice?
No, none whatsoever. That all comes from Robert and Michelle [King]. I’m sure a lot of it is rights, what they’re allowed to use and whatnot.

How long did you and Christine practice that scene? It seems so easygoing and natural, which must be hard to fake, I imagine.
Not necessarily with Christine, because that happens for us backstage anyway. She’s a singer and I’m a singer, so sometimes she’ll start singing a song and a moment later I’m singing along with her. So it was quite comfortable. We just did rehearsal the day of the shoot. I knew all the lyrics to the song because I’m a big fan of it, and Christine knew it fairly well too.

This is your second full season on The Good Fight. I’m curious, what is it about Liz Reddick that drew you back to the character?
Well, the premise of the show is so exciting. How many television shows are there about a predominantly African-American law firm? Can you name more than one?

[Laughs.] No.
So there’s that, the whip-smart stories that the Kings come up with, and getting the opportunity to work with Christine — all of those were things that absolutely drew me to the project. As far as Liz is concerned, there’s so much about who she is that I identify with, obviously. I’m an African-American woman in my 40s, and a parent, and someone who’s working and someone who’s struggling to forge a path that is on the moral high ground given the administration that we’re all living through. But just because you’re always trying to go high, as our great former FLOTUS said, you can’t always. We’re finding out within the world of The Good Fight anyway, that it doesn’t always work.

That’s very true.
You start to question your personality and your ethics, in terms of making sure that the ends justify the means. There’s a lot of great moral and ethical dilemmas that Liz and the rest of the folks on The Good Fight are going through.

Some of the season’s most moving scenes involve Liz’s reactions to learning about her father’s history of sexual assault. They speak to Liz’s private grief: Her father obviously died at the beginning of the second season, but she’s also grieving because her understanding of her father is completely blown apart.
Completely destroyed.

Was grief at the forefront of your mind in playing those scenes?
What Liz is going through, it’s grief, it’s rage. It’s also something as pure as finding out that there’s no Santa Claus. All of your innocence [is] completely ripped apart in one fell swoop. And the grief is even greater for Liz because she doesn’t have her father there to confront, to scream, “Come on, try to defend yourself in some way.” At the same time, she realizes that this could possibly take down not only his legacy, but their future as a firm. And her future.

So there’s grief and rage and confusion and then she goes into defensive mode, which is why Liz, immediately, she’s just going into triage mode, because it’s the only thing she knows how to do. But as you see throughout the season, his indiscretions continue to have ramifications in her life. Her father is still completely wrecking her life. It’s a lot. The main way I played it was to let it all bubble up, and then try to force it all down throughout every single scene. And that’s how the Kings wrote it as well. She still has to function.

I really love watching Liz and Diane get to know each other as people and seeing them work within their resistance group. How is it working with Christine this season and building this friendship between Liz and Diane?
It’s wonderful. It’s given me more time to be onscreen with Christine, which I’ve always enjoyed, but for Liz and Diane, they were frenemies last season. They both recognize that they were formidable foes, or they could be formidable foes. I like that the Kings thought bringing them together on the same side would be a pretty powerful alchemy. It’s wonderful to let them work through stuff together and come to a mutual understanding and respect.

You’ll see as the season goes on, they are educating each other too. There’ll be times where you see that Diane, for all her incredible wisdom and accomplishments and ambition, there are certain things that she cannot possibly understand because she is not African-American, and Liz schools her about that. The way Diane educates Liz, she’s like, “Hey, you don’t corner the market on people who love Prince,” or to say, “Don’t prejudge me because I’m a successful, upper-middle-class Caucasian woman! I am more than just that!”

What’s also interesting is how their friendship plays out against this backdrop of the firm’s intense racial tension. Can you talk a little bit about Liz’s place in the firm?
Adrian [Boseman]’s whole thing is, “Anything to survive and stay successful.” He’s the daddy of the firm in that respect. Liz, I think she’s the mommy in the firm. And as the firm is growing, their “children” [laughs] — the first- and second- and third-years — are growing and are becoming more woke. Maybe it’s making them realize they’re behind the times, or that they have to address things that before they could have just pooh-poohed. Our “children” like Jay and Marissa and the younger ones are becoming, I don’t want to say rebellious, but they’re growing into their own.

As an actor, was there ever a moment of shooting a scene in which your understanding of the story changed from when you first read it?
All the time! Especially because some of the issues get so thorny that you go, “Wait a minute, somebody explain this to me!”

There’s been multiple times. One thing, within the first episode, Robert King had me saying to my father’s secretary, “Well, fuck him” about my father. I had to go to Robert King and say, “Even if that’s what she felt and that’s what she’d say maybe to other people, she’d never in a million years say that to an African woman who’s her elder.”

Never! I can’t even imagine doing that!
Right! Robert was like, “Oh really?” No, not in a million years. And he was like, “But you hate your father now.” And I go, Yeah, but it does not matter. She would not use that language with this woman. So in the same respect, Robert and Michelle are very open to when something rings really false. And also, we’ve got African-Americans in the writing room. You have to, you know?

What do you get from acting on television that you don’t get when it comes to Broadway? How does the pleasure of acting change?
With television you have the opportunity to be even more realistic because the camera’s right there. You don’t have to speak in a projected way to be heard. You’re thinking loudly, but you can be more intimate and realistic in the way that certain scenes are portrayed. And it’s something different every single day. Right now, I’m in rehearsal for a Broadway show [Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune]. Once we go in, we rehearse and we rehearse and we rehearse. And then once we start running, that’s it. That’s what you’re doing every single night. The characters don’t change, the story doesn’t change, it’s that one story that’s being told every night.

Sometimes it’s wonderful to be able to continue to put these characters in different situations, so you’re living with the character but the situation and the plot and the story is changing daily. Other times, it’s a great thing to just have the one plot and the one story, and you deepen your understanding of that character night after night after night after night over a long period of time. They both have things that I find pleasurable.

What has been your favorite scene to shoot this season?
Well, I absolutely enjoyed singing with Christine. I’m trying to think of another. Oh! It’s part of the episode where they’re learning about each other by doing that team-building exercise where they have to walk away from each other and learn things about each other. That’s been one of my favorite scenes to film so far with Christine.

My final question is, what do you think is Liz Reddick’s personal truth?
Before, I think it was that she was worthy to be called her father’s daughter and that she would get to leave as big of a mark as he did, and a worthy one. Now, she has to come out of that and say, “I am not my father’s daughter — I am better.” It’s a very different thing. I think now it’s “I am not my father’s daughter, I am better than that, and I am worthy of all that entails.” She’s nowhere near it, but that’s, I think, what her personal truth is and what her biggest desire is.

Audra McDonald on Singing Prince With Christine Baranski https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2019/04/24/24-audra-mcdonald-chat-room-silo.png